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Earlier this year, the City of Douglas in Coffee County, Georgia adopted new Rules of Procedure and Order (“Council Rules”) for its City Council meetings and hearings.  Among other problematic aspects, these new rules contained multiple provisions affording unfettered discretion to the Mayor as the presiding officer – or the City Council as a body – to determine which members of the public would be allowed to speak during public comment periods, and for how long, and to control the speech of witnesses called before the Council. These provisions created substantial risk of the City’s engaging in viewpoint-based regulation of  citizen speech, in violation of the First Amendment.

In June 2020, the First Amendment Clinic, joined by co-counsel Gerry Weber and Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote to Douglas City officials outlining the free-speech concerns created by the Council Rules.  The Clinic proposed revisions that would safeguard the First Amendment rights of individuals wanting to publicly comment before the Council or called to testify.

Letter to City of Douglas Proposing Rules Revisions – 06.22.20

On July 27, 2020, the City Council adopted revised Council Rules that incorporate a majority of the Clinic’s proposed changes for insuring  viewpoint neutrality and decreasing the amount of arbitrary discretion afforded to the Mayor and the Council to discriminate against speakers with whose content or views they disagree.

Revised Council Rules – Adopted 7-27-20

The following examples illustrate the nature of the changes proposed by the Clinic and adopted by the City Council.

Example #1
Original Council Rule:
“The Mayor will require the Council, City Manager, Staff, and citizens to refrain from using the public meeting as a forum for rude, slanderous or disruptive personal attacks on others, and the Mayor will have the authority to take the floor away from individuals who act unruly, interrupts the speaker recognized by the Chair.”

Revised Council Rule:
“The Mayor will require the Council, City Manager, Staff, and citizens to refrain from disrupting or impeding the meeting, and the Mayor will have the authority to take the floor away from individuals who act disruptively, or interrupt the speaker recognized by the Chair.

Example #2
Original Council Rule:
“Comments from the public are allowed during the Work Session provided the citizen completes the request form to appear before the Council during the Work Session before the established deadline.  However, a majority consensus for the Council may allow a citizen to speak to the Council during the Work Session if the citizen missed the deadline.  This should be a rare occurrence.  As the presiding officer, the Mayor may establish a time limit for the speaker of 3 minutes.”

Revised Council Rule:
“Comments from the public are allowed during the Work Session provided the citizen completes the request form to appear before the Council during the Work Session before the established deadline of noon on the day of the meeting. Public comments during the Work Session are limited to 3 minutes per speaker except that speakers representing a group of 5 or more individuals may speak for up to 5 minutes.”

Example #3
Original Council Rule:
“Calling Witnesses to include City Manager, Department Directors, etc.: . . . As the presiding officer, the Mayor will establish a time limit for the witness to be asked questions. The Mayor may extend the questioning limit if the Mayor decides it’s for the great good of the City. As the presiding officer, the Mayor may end the questioning if the Council member or witness jeopardize the decorum of the meeting.”

Revised Council Rule:
“Calling Witnesses to include City Manager, Department Directors, etc.: . . .As the presiding officer, the Mayor may end the questioning if the Council member or witness are disrupting the meeting.”